Against the Fall of Night

Usually, if I have a favorite book I can count on someone else having heard of it. If I mention The Chronicles of Amber, or Swords Against Death (failing that, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Robert E. Howard, or even Harold Lamb, most of my reader friends will have heard of the book, author, or series. Most of us fantasy and science fiction readers of a certain age have been exposed to these works.

But no one ever seems to have heard of Michael Arnold’s Against the Fall of Night. I looked it up on Goodreads this morning and found one lone reviewer had given it five stars. Everyone else (but me, now) had only checked it off as something they wanted to read.

Published in 1975, Against the Fall of Night is (mostly) set during the time of the last gasp of the Byzantine Empire, during the reign of the Comnenus dynasty. And its main figure is Andronikus, the one man who might have saved the empire from the horrible mismanagement of his cousin Manuel if he’d had just a little more time and a little better luck. Manuel inherits the throne when he and Andronikus are both young men and then gradually, choice after disastrous choice, fritters away resources and opportunities.

Andronikus is a complex figure — charismatic, rash, daring, and brilliant. He’s torn by loyalty to his cousin and his sense that he could do far better, and eventually rebels. He’s the closest ┬áliterary figure I’ve ever seen to Zelazny’s Corwin of Amber. Minus the ability to ride through shadow, I mean.

The novel opens with the sacking of Constantinople by the Franks during the 4th Crusade, after which Constantinople and the empire endured only as a shadow of its former glory. Arnold postulates that if Andronikus had succeeded, the sacking would never have happened, and once you get to know Andronikus over the course of the novel you’re pretty certain he’s right.

I stumbled upon Against the Fall of Night while I was wandering through the county library late in junior high. I’d never heard of the book or the author, but the blurb looked good. It was probably the thickest tome I’d ever read at the time, and I have to confess that during the long opening prologue, when it’s mostly about the horrible sacking of Constantinople, I almost stopped reading. But once the main portion began I was almost immediately enthralled. Arnold brought the time and place to life so well that the strange became real. From the outset I knew Andronikus would fail, but I didn’t know how, or why it mattered. Pretty soon I began to care, deeply, and was rooting him on.

I loved that book. It was the first non-spec fic book I’d ever read that I liked so well, and it launched me into an exploration of other books about the Byzantine Empire… but none were as good, and by the end of the summer I’d actually checked it out again and read it all the way through. In my mid-twenties my friend Robert Farley found a copy at a library book sale and gifted it to me, and I discovered it was just as fine on a third reading. Powerful, moving, full of fascinating characters, intrigue, and action, it was just one helluva good read.

Yet it seems to have been the last book Michael Arnold ever wrote. I’ve never been able to learn much more about Mr. Arnold, and, as I mentioned, never met anyone but Robert who had read and enjoyed the book. These days, when fantasy readers routinely seem to prefer monster tomes of multiple volumes, I imagine they might find Against the Fall of Night right up their alley. Sure, there’s no dragons or magic, but there’s a lot of popular low magic settings in print today. And the setting is so vivid yet unfamiliar it might as well be an imaginary place. Most of us really don’t know too much about the late Byzantine Empire.

Has anyone else out there read and loved this book? If not, will someone read it? Maybe we can form a club and wear I Heart Andonikus t-shirts to conventions…

 

11 Comments on “Against the Fall of Night

      • One of the most engaging and memorable books I’ve read, in seventy years of intensive reading.

  1. Howard.

    There’s a review on Kirkus Reviews (along with reviews of his two earlier historical novels ‘A Turn Toward Home’ and ‘The Archduke’) and supposedly a review in the Library Journal ‘Library Journal;5/15/1975, Vol. 100 Issue 10, p1007’. Sounds like a darn good read.

    • Hi Rich,

      I read his first book (reportedly written while he was an undergrad) and liked it, but didn’t love it the way I did Against the Fall of Night — although there are a couple of moments in the book I still think about to this day. I seem to recall looking up those old reviews, which were generally positive. His second novel, ” A Turn Toward Home” was contemporary, and I never tried it. I suppose I should.

  2. Well, Mr. Jones, you convinced me! This book sounds like just my thing. But it’s hard to get a hold of, apparently. Of course, the fact that I live in Denmark may not be helping matters much… I can’t get it through interlibrary loan in this entire country. The UK amazon only has two or three rather expensive copies, and though amazon US has a few affordable copies, they will not ship to Denmark. Bugger.

    Ah well, I guess it’ll go on the list for next time I make a Stateside trek!

    • Juniper, that’s unfortunate. I just checked my go-to source, http://www.addall.com, and the best overseas price I found was 37 dollars before shipping.

      Hope you get a chance to try it some day!

  3. I read this book about 2 years after its publishing. I have a first edition, first print copy with a jacket in fairly good condition. When I read this story I must admit it stopped me “dead in my tracks!” It is beautifully written and generally on the mark with regard to referencing the Chroniclers; e.g., Nicetas Choniates (Acominatus in Lat.) and William of Tyre. Being somewhat of an historiographer and a “Byzantineophile” I was stunned by the accuracy and power of the story. I really felt the story line the very first time I ever entered St. Mark’s in Venice. The cathedral is an exact replica (in scale) to the Cathedral of Holy Apostles in Constantinople, burial place to most of the E. Roman Emperors and their dynastic families. Most importantly, behind the High Altar of St. Mark’s is the famous Pala d’Oro Icon looted during The Great Sack, from Holy Apostles. When my lady saw and photographed me in St. Mark’s she commented she could see me 900 years ago in the great church! Though there a few inaccuracies in the story regarding the dynasty of the Comneni … for the most part the book is right on. The book profoundly articulated the last true effulgence of the Eastern remains of the Roman Empire.

    • I don’t’ know how I missed this post, but thank you for dropping by and sharing your story. It’s nice to meet another fan, and it’s nice to know that the details are mostly accurate. Probably Arnold only changed a few things to streamline narrative and left the historical bits mostly as they were.

      I’d like to get over there and wander around, someday, as you have done.

  4. Grazie mille Howard for recommending this obscure gem. For a history buff and Byzantine fan Aganist the Fall of Night is a must read. I’m sure George R.R Martin used it as a basis for Game of Thrones. What ever happened to Arnold? If this was his only work it certainly was a magnifico accomplishment. An edifying and enthralling look into a lost civilization.

    • Hi Bruce,
      It’s a pleasure to meet someone else who enjoyed the book as much as I did. I’ve bumped into George Martin before at a convention — if I get the chance at the next World Fantasy con I’ll try to ask him if he’s heard of the book.

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